The Great Journey

This morning we begin with an insight from writer Jeremy Dowsett that stems from his experience as a bicyclist. He rides a bike, and that’s taught him something. “Sometimes it’s dangerous for me,” he says, “because people in cars are just blatantly [rude]. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think it’s funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose.”

He continues, “Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.”

“And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile toward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a buildup of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.”

How many of you ride a bike and can immediately relate? How many of you don’t ride a bike and this is all news to you?

But Jeremy Dowsett’s main point goes way beyond this.

“I can imagine,” he says, “that for people of color, life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.”

Above all, what white privilege talk is about is NOT shaming anyone. It’s NOT about saying anyone is bad. It’s simply about understanding why James Baldwin could write, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all of the time.” It’s also about understanding why what James Baldwin wrote might thoroughly shake up nice, non-aggressive whites—catch them completely off guard; or why we’ve seen “Black Lives Matter” banners around the country defaced—the word “Black” cut out and replaced by the word “All.”

White privilege talk is simply about UNDERSTANDING. There is a systemic imbalance. To have to proclaim that Black Lives Matter says something very bad about the state of our world.

And it’s just unacceptable.

And we’ve got to keep talking.

Scientist and author Margaret Wheatley says, “I’ve seen that there’s no more powerful way to initiate significant change than to convene a conversation. When a community of people discovers that they share a concern, change begins. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.”

Change happens through conversation. People share stories and memories and hopes. Ideas meander and circle and explore. Some folks are way ahead of the curve; they’re ready to rush ahead yesterday. But if the engine unhooks from the train cars, guess where the train is going? Nowhere.

An African proverb says it like this: you want to go fast, go alone. You want to go far, go deep, go broad, go total—go together.

That’s what I want to talk about today. Share some thoughts about our “go far, go together” strategy this program year regarding our Great Journey into antiracism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism.

And I’ll begin with why this is a congregational priority—why your Board voted to give it top priority, and why I’m right there with them.

Part of it is our Unitarian Universalist theology. Who we are, what we stand for.

Take our historic affirmation that everyone belongs to Love and no one should be left out, neither in the now or for eternity. It means that we have to talk about race. Kids are not colorblind. Adults not talking about something that is so obvious means it’s bad. That’s how kids interpret the silence. When they don’t see different races interacting and getting along—when they are familiar with only one race (theirs)—the default conclusion is, I can’t trust people who have a different skin color. Not good. Stay away.

This is not where we want things to be—as New York Magazine writer Lisa Miller says, “a nation of fellow citizens who are foreigners to each other, mute xenophobes whose hearts rush to their throats when a racially charged comment or conflict, or even curiosity, arises.” But this is where things go unless we take a stand. Unless we become the change we wish to see in the world.

Unless we are rigorously honest with ourselves about how Unitarian Universalist congregations have been, historically, white spaces. Again, I say this not to condemn but simply to say that the automobile is privileged here, and if you ride a bike, it’s harder going for you.

It’s in the fabric of our community. Communication style, sense of time, approach to knowing. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, public communication generally needs to be toned down and not emotional if it’s to be taken seriously; physical gestures need to be in medium range and not large or frequent; money talk needs to be toned down or else it’s considered completely gauche; time needs to be saved and conserved, everything needs to be on time and God forbid you go over; the way to truth needs to emphasize the rational and the cerebral or it’s a suspicious way.

Our congregations are endlessly fascinating by how they invariably reproduce the New England culture of the ancestors—the William Ellery Channings, the Ralph Waldo Emersons—even though New England might be far removed geographically and historically…

But again and again, I’m saying all this not to shame or blame. Just to make it very clear that, however lovely New England congregationalism might be, it leaves a lot of people out. People who love the Seven Principles, but you have to check your race and ethnicity at the door in order to come in.

It’s a betrayal of our history as a freedom people. We have always sought out the ways of freedom. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God; they believed in a direct free connection without any intermediary. 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that church traditions were equivalent with God; they believed that the freedom way to the Source was the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world. And now, right now, we need to take a stand and say that European American culture—specifically the Yankee variety—is not the only form of freedom through which to reach out and touch God; there are lots of other ways to reach out and touch God, too.

We want this new reach of freedom. We want it for ourselves and we want it for all the people who love Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles and who love what we stand for but they come into our midst and realize, to their sadness and dismay, that they have to give up who they are in order to fit in.

That is not right.

The betrayal is especially deep when we think about the history of this specific Unitarian Universalist congregation. How, in the early 1950s, it died and was born again in the cleansing fires of racial integration. How we protested lunch counter segregationism at Rich’s Department Store. Clashes with the Ku Klux Klan. People losing friends and jobs because they were Unitarian Universalists and affirmed that EVERYONE has inherent worth and dignity. Dr. King in our pulpit, preaching his Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution message. The intentionally African American Unitarian Universalist church we helped plant—Thurman Hamer Ellington Church. Our many years of the Hope-Hill School Project. How, since I begin my ministry here, our way of worship has diversified beyond the standard Unitarian Universalist New England style and has explored other styles and ways … and it feels good.

Can I hear an AMEN?

Our UUCA history positively cries out that this is a priority for us. Asking ourselves who we really are, what our hearts break for here and now, so that, as a community, we can understand how to be the best Beloved Community we can be.

So what will this look like?

Our “go far, go together” strategy will be based on the “Taking A Public Stand Policy” that our Board approved back in January, with ultimate authorization coming from the congregation. In accordance with that process, UUCA’s Inclusivity Team, EnterCulture, will draft a resolution that voices commitment to antiracism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism and will submit it to the congregation in the form of a petition. If at least 15% of the congregation signs, then EnterCulture will share the results with the Board, and, once the Board validates the results, the whole process moves into a second phase, which is to last no longer than 90 days. It will be 90 days of events and activities of all sorts that will turn UUCA into the intentional learning space that the General Assembly Black Lives Matter Resolution calls for. After the 90 days, the entire congregation at an official meeting will vote to approve taking a collective stand, or not. I’m recommending that things be timed so that the vote takes place at our regular May meeting time. May 2016.

So this is the year. I hope your ears are perked up. Last year it was plenty of sermons and the EnterCulture workshops and our Remembering Selma event, but this year we are asking for dedicated participation from everyone—a Great Journey.

And I have some hopes for this I want to share.

One is suggested by a remarkable finding reported in National Geographic late last year. “A study of brain activity at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that subjects register race in about one-tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.” I mention this simply to underscore the primal quality of what we’re dealing with. Any work we do with it gets to the bottom of things, goes deep. We already know that race intersects with class and gender and all sorts of other social identities, and this is certainly one way talking about race gets to the bottom of things. But it’s also an existential bottom we dive into. The muck and mud of our humanity….

So I hope we enter into our congregational conversations knowing this, how deep the work is.

Which immediately suggests my second hope: that the character of our conversations is different from what we’d experience in an ethics class or a social policy class. My hope is that we resist this intellectualization of the topic, because it skates above the real issues which are more about the lived experience of race, the reflexive reactions to difference that we all experience: fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety but also curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration. If our conversations can get to this level, that’s when they truly become life-changing.

If we can do this, then something else I hope is that we can live up to our covenantal promises to each other, to love and respect each other even though we are going to hear things coming out of our mouths that might be Donald Trump worthy. Which is inevitable when the material at hand is the irrational goopy stuff of our reflexive reactions to difference.

And not just that, but also because of all the pain that surrounds the topic. To people who are privileged, equity can feel like oppression and so they say things…. They want to insist that All Lives Matter is the better mantra. They wonder why we have such a thing as Gay Pride Month but what about Straight Pride Month? What about that? And to this, the folks who experience real systemic oppression say things….

Like New York Times writer Charles Blow says, “some immunity must be granted. Assuming that the conversational engagement is honest and earnest, we must be able to hear and say things that some might find offensive as we stumble toward interpersonal empathy and understanding.”

I hope, I hope, I hope.

Above all, I hope that we achieve much more than a majority of yes votes or even a supermajority on our collective resolution to go deeper into the work of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism. Because all that a majority or supermajority vote does for us as a democratic people is open the door. But we could step through gingerly, cautiously, with only a “lowest common denominator” mentality that, in the end, changes nothing. That’s not the Great Journey I hope for us. Of course, we’re wanting a majority of yes votes in May 2016 to open the door, but then let’s combine that with a congregation-wide clarity of purpose that compels us to jump through. A sense of purpose that is so clear that we know who we are, we jump through that door singing and laughing and alive and willing to take risks.

That’s what I hope we accomplish through our Great Journey.

Go far, go together.

Face down the steel and concrete infrastructure of the automobile complex and refuse despair, refuse defeat, and get to work.

Never stop affirming that everyone belongs to love, and no one is left out.

Did you know that, at the heart of Selma, Alabama is a big monument to Dr. King? It memorializes the historic March to Birmingham. But on it we read, “I HAD a Dream.”

He HAD a Dream—as if it’s all but past tense? Something lost?

I say nothing about the Dream is past tense or lost, if we’re living into it now and resolve never to stop living into it.

He HAS a Dream, and so do we.